Thursday, January 28, 2021

Cloaks and daggers ÔÇô inside Seretse’s ouster

At the top floor of the shiny glacial finished Botswana Telecommunications Corporation head office, behind the door with a nameplate that says “Chief Executive Officer”, Vincent Seretse picked his telephone handset and dialed the numbers of his managers.

“Give me the name of the most talented person in your team,” he demanded. Some managers asked for time to sleep over the request, but Seretse insisted “now!” In a few minutes, he had a list of names on his desk. A few days later, he was sitting at a round table in the boardroom surrounded by starry eyes and chubby faces as he unveiled his ambitious plan for the BTC P150 million mobile phone networks to a group of BTC youngsters.

BTC insiders like to recount this episode in a bid to capture Seretse’s can-do management style. “He is Nike with an attitude. When Nike says Just do it, he says just f… do it.”

It is thus not surprising that when the maverick dreamer finally clears his desk at the BTC chief executive officer’s desk end of April, he will leave behind a number of bruised egos and wonder struck faces musing over pieces of his dream, pondering what might have been.

Before word went out last week that Seretse’s contract will not be renewed, scores of his charges, who only a few months ago were starry eyed youngsters looking through the multi-million pula mobile phone rabbit hole, were now beating their chests confident of delivering a multi-million pula cellular phone service in record time. A report by Deloitte and Touch├® on the state of the corporation which has been passed to Sunday Standard observed that the BTC cellular phone network which, until last week, was on track to be delivered in a record six months was the fastest roll out ever done by people coming from a non mobile phone background. BTC insiders say this could not have been achieved without Seretse’s aggression and can do management style.

For the past year, he has been fighting almost everyone to ensure that BTC not only has a cell phone network service, but is also delivered in time and within budget.

He fought PEEPA officials who felt that BTC should minimise investment and infrastructural development including new technology deployment because this could frustrate the privatisation process. This was not helped by the opposing views held by Seretse and PEEPA on the BTC privatisation.

While PEEPA is advocating a straight forward equity sale, it is understood Seretse argued for other sale methods to be fully interrogated, such as straight initial public offering (IPO). Seretse complained that under the PEEPA privatisation route, extracting value from the sale of a national strategic asset is not being considered to be a primary objective.

Sunday Standard can reveal that at a meeting held at The Office of The President sometime last year, Seretse argued that “privatisation structures via Strategic Equity Partner participation are generally motivated by the need to seek investment capital and/or to attract skills.” Seretse noted that “skills are commodities which can be secured through the payment of market related compensation and also that neither BTC nor the Government requires external capital in comparison with other countries. The need to focus on a strategic equity partner format should, therefore, be questioned.” For sometime, even the minister of Communications, Science and Technology, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, seemed paralyzed by the privatisation row.

At that meeting, it is understood that the Minister, who recently went around the country telling Batswana to ready themselves to buy shares, confirmed that Batswana are ready. It is also understood that the Minister took some time to appreciate the point by Seretse to fast track the mobile phone project and at the same time wanted to unravel the controversy caused by conflicting views from PEEPA and BTC.

It is believed that this all round ambivalence and lack of decisiveness affected BTC’s day to day operations and seriously exposed BTC to competitor threat.”

It, thus, comes as a pleasant surprise that up until last week, BTC staff members were confident that they were still on track to deliver the mobile phone project in record time.

This week, however, most were not so sure anymore. With Seretse dropped from the driver’s seat, the road ahead seemed bleak for the ambitious enterprise. A number of possibilities are already being floated. BTC is in the process of being privatized and there are concerns that it may prove difficult to get a qualified person to run it on a few months contract before it is privatized.

There are even fears among some staff members that PEEPA, which was against the mobile phone project, may come in and start running the corporation on the argument that it is being privatized. The fears are gaining strength on the back of revelations that although PEEPA is an advisory body with no powers to execute privatisation, it has been given the powers of attorney by government to advise and carry out the privatisation process. This apparent conflict of interest has, for sometime, been stoking the already tense relationship between PEEPA and BTC management. BTC and PEEPA fought over the appointment of privatisation transaction advisors.

While BTC, supported by the Business Advisory Council Board chairman, Nico Czypionka, felt that it was prudent that they appointed their own in-house advisors, PEEPA, which had also appointed its own transaction advisors, were incensed by what they called duplication of efforts. There was even a fight over BTC’s refusal to pay more than P100 million in fees to advisors appointed by PEEPA, arguing that they were footing the bill for their own in-house advisors. The tense relationship came to a head when Board members who were in both the PEEPA and the BTC board were asked to choose between the two boards. Shirley Segokgo and Oabile Mabusa, who found themselves in the difficult situation, grudgingly resigned from the PEEPA board. Sunday Standard can reveal that board chairperson, Leonard Makwinja, was highly concerned and sought advice that confirmed that indeed there was conflict of interest.

The board believed that the move was spearheaded by Seretse. This did not help the CEO’s already tense relationship with the board.

The BTC board never really rolled out the welcome mat to Seretse when he was brought in from the Botswana Housing Corporation (BHC). There was a sense among board members that he was imposed on BTC by former minister Boyce Sebetela. No sooner than Sebetela was out of office that the board started baying for Seretse’s blood. Last year, the board recommended to the new minister, Venson-Moitoi, not to renew Seretse’s contract. It is understood that Moitoi-Venson demanded correspondence that proved that the board was unhappy with Seretse’s performance. She received none. She then looked at BTC performance figures and saw a steep rising graph that suggested that the BTC chief Executive Officer was a star performer.

The BTC latest annual report shows that when Seretse took over BTC in 2004, the BTC was in the red after suffering a loss in 2003. In 2004 the BTC recorded its first net profit of about P90 million. In 2005, the profit went up to about P120 million; in 2006 it also went up to P160 million and, last year, the profit was a P120 million down from the previous year, allegedly because of the staff rationalization programme. The corporation’s operation revenue on the other hand was also growing sharply, from about P600 million in 2003 to P800 million in 2007. Botsnet, the internet service provider arm of BTC which had been running at a loss since inception started making profit for the first time and the P200 million Trans Kalahari Fiber Deployment project, which had failed to take off in the past, was on course to be completed before time and within budget, according to sources intimately involved in the project.

With the facts and figures stacked against the board’s recommendations, Minister Moitoi-Venson turned down the board and renewed Seretse’s contract. Moitoi-Venson, however, struck a deal of sorts with the board. She suggested that the board should monitor Seretse’s performance during his one year contract. BTC insiders say it was game on. Daggers were drawn against the embattled CEO as the board sought to justify their earlier decision. A huge rift developed between the BTC board and management. Board meetings allegedly became fishing expeditions where board members competed to see who would point out the most mistakes in the management’s presentations. “Board sessions became nit-picking, hair-splitting sessions where a whole hour would be set aside to grilling management over a typographical error in their presentations.

In a curious turn of events, the board even turned against Seretse during the controversy surrounding the BTC planned retrenchment exercise. The corporation is aiming at reducing its staff complement by 25% and it was anticipated that the affected staff will start exiting the corporation by the end of February 2008. Although the board has turned against Seretse maintaining that he did not have the board approval to negotiate the retrenchment packages with staff, Sunday Standard has been able to gather evidence of the board’s resolutions, giving Seretse the go ahead to retrench staff.

With Seretse and the board having failed to heal their fractured relationship since 2007, it did not come as a surprise that the board reiterated their 2006 recommendation that Seretse should go because he is not performing. This is in spite of endorsement by independent auditors, Price WaterHouseCoopers, recognizing BTC as the best-in-class for two years in succession (2006 & 2007).

According to BTC plans, Seretse had an oversight of multi-million projects, including Trans Kalahari and the Mobile business. Sunday Standard can reveal that, as at end of January 2008, the P200 million Trans Kalahari Fiber Project was almost complete in record time ahead of schedule and within record time. The P150 million mobile phone network was on track for completion in record time, the P90 million network transformation to Next Generation Network was ongoing, the broadband expansion initiated by Seretse and targeting to provide 60,000 lines of affordable internet to all was within the planning period and good progress achieved in the Global Connectivity initiative (ESSEY) ÔÇô milestone achieved financial closure.

And a number of projects, which were on the drawing board for several years, had been planned and executed. Sources within the government enclave are questioning the wisdom of parting ways with Seretse at such a crucial time.

Under the uncertainties of privatization, there are concerns that the board may not be able to attract Seretse’s replacement in such a short time. It remains to be seen if the new BTC boss will be able to keep up Seretse’s pace and still deliver the corporation for privatisation on time.
One thing is for certain, if BTC was a listed company the stocks would be tumbling down with only the shareholders to suffer.

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